Today, Drew and Shelby are discussing Batgirl 9, originally released May 9th, 2012. This issue is part of the Night of the Owls crossover event. Click here for complete NotO coverage. Not caught up on Batgirl? No problem! Get up to speed with our video Cram Session.
Drew: As a crossover event, the Night of the Owls is pretty rigid in what it requires of its participating titles. Namely that the hero(es) 1) receive Alfred’s APB, 2) rush to protect one of the target on the hit-list, and 3) battle at least one Talon in order to protect said target. Those strict guidelines run the risk of getting old rather quickly, as they are repeated in about a dozen titles in a single month. It’s credit to writer Gail Simone that she managed to wrangle and subvert those guidelines into a compelling narrative, though doing so left little room for that signature Babs wit we’ve come to love from Simone’s writing.
The issue opens in mid-40’s Japan, of all places, where we meet a young Japanese schoolgirl whose class is tasked with making bomb-carrying balloons destined for the west coast of the US (which apparently really happened). We’re then whisked-off to a few years later, where we meet the only surviving victim of that balloon attack — a young girl named Mary now in the employ of Haly’s Circus. A scout from the Court of Owls sizes her up, first put off by her physical and mental disfigurement, but then tenderly invites her to join him to become the Court’s next Talon. Jump ahead again to early on the night of the Owls, as Babs battles Mary’s Talon, who has apparently just set off one of those balloon-bombs. Mary gets the upper hand, but leaves Barbara (relatively) unharmed.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon receives a threat from the Court: he must not take any police action against the court, nor light the bat-signal, or his daughter will be killed. Gordon does his best to ignore reports as they come in (all of which will be covered in various other titles in the coming weeks). Eventually, he can’t take it anymore, and calls Babs. Unfortunately, the Court intercepts his call, and deploys a whole mess of balloon-bombs on the GCPD. Gordon decides to make a mad dash for the bat-signal. Barbara, having just received Alfred’s call, races to the station, only to find it already under attack, and Mary on the roof. She battle’s Mary, throwing her off the roof, which she of course survives. Babs asks why she let her live earlier, and Mary (unable to speak), draws in her own blood “I hav mask 2 I understand.” Gordon makes it to the roof safely, and throws on the bat-signal, only to discover it has been replaced with the Athenian owl-symbol used by the Court. We also learn that the Japanese girl from the beginning was in Nagasaki.
That last twist is artfully deployed, returning us to the letter she had written home, and giving us just one more word, revealing that she likely died when the atomic bomb was dropped only a few months later. The only problem is, I’m not sure what to make of that reveal. The joy in the faces of that girl and her classmates as they watch their balloons float away suggests an innocence, but those balloons were carrying deadly weapons. That she’s dead is surely tragic, but it’s morally ambiguous to the point of losing all meaning.
Mary’s story is a bit clearer — it makes sense that she would fixate on the weapon used to kill her family, but I’m not convinced bombs make sense for the stealthy, precise ways of a Talon. Maybe it doesn’t need to make sense, though, since her character arc is so compelling. Disfigured by the bomb, she was wearing bandages on her face before she was swept up by the Court. As the Talon, she wore another mask, albeit for different reasons. The thought that she feels more of an allegiance to masks than to the Court is interesting, but I’m not sure what happens after this. She’s incapacitated, and has offered an explanation of sorts to Babs, but she’s still a Talon. Does she get ice-boxed, or does her compassion save her from the fate of her compatriots?
We also may or may not get a little arc about the agent of the Court that first meets Mary. We’ve never seen anyone openly affiliated with the Court without a mask, and it calls into question his role. Curiously, it looks like he might also be the same guy who threatens Jim:
Now, maybe the similarities in their clothing is some kind of uniform, or is just meant as a hint that this person who just spoke to the Commissioner is part of the Court, but what if it’s the same guy? The Court can make their Talons live on indefinitely, so why not other agents and/or members? I don’t know what that guys story is, but now I want to know.
While tiny vignettes are enough to give a satisfying arc to these new characters, they don’t leave quite enough room for the big drama going on with the Gordons. Jim’s concern for his daughter’s safety is one of the most touching things about their relationship, but we never quite feel it here. We understand how it’s motivating his actions — and boy does it, he sits idly by for longer than I’ve ever seen him — but those actions are glimpsed so briskly, we don’t feel the strain of those decisions.
Similarly, there’s not much room for Babs in all of this. Sure, she’s in two fight-scenes, and does some great sleuthing in between, but we don’t get to luxuriate in her personality the way we normally do. It’s a testament to how endearing Simone has made Batgirl that I always want more, but that desire is a little more salient in this issue. Letting the spotlight drift a little makes sense, given the constraints of the crossover, and makes a compelling villain out of what could have been a very anonymous assassin type. That’s a herculean feat in 20 pages, so I totally understand why some of Batgirl’s real estate had to be ceded. In the end, it’s still a compelling, exciting story, it just lacks the tight focus on Batgirl that has typified this series. Still, I look forward to next month, when Babs can jump back to front-and-center, right where she belongs.
Shelby: You know, I didn’t even make that connection with Nagasaki in the end. It was definitely an, “Oh, Nagasaki, that’s nice,” sort of moment. My bad.
But your good point has got me thinking. I think the comparison lies between Ayumi and her classmates and the Talons themselves, specifically Mary in this instance. The Talons, like that Japanese girl, were innocent children, taken from their families and indoctrined by the Court’s dogma, brainwashed and transformed into something else. As all these fights happen, it’s easy to see the Talons as the enemy, but they were children. And the Nagasaki reference? It’s grim, but I think it reminds the reader that, if you push your enemy hard enough, right or wrong, there will be consequences for the guilty and innocent alike.
Yikes, enough of that heavy stuff. I think Simone was really smart with this story. It’s true, we don’t get to be quite as immersed in Babs Gordon’s awesomeness as we are used to, but I think that’s mostly because we are spoiled by how awesome Simone’s Barbara is. Barbara’s voice is still very present throughout this story.
Barbara also has these little moments that I love, like when she observes that the Talon moves an awful lot like Nightwing. I think my favorite moment was when she threw Mary off the roof. It’s my favorite moment because Babs regretted doing it. She knew about the Talons’ healing abilities, so she had no problem breaking out the more dangerous weaponry while they were fighting, but she knew that, no matter how bad things were, throwing that woman off the roof crossed a line. She knew it was wrong, just like she knew it was what had to be done.
I don’t know how she does it. Simone crafted a haunting and touching backstory for a villain we’ll never see again. She used an Inception-style flashback within a flashback that didn’t over-burden the mere 20-some pages used. She gave us some fun fight scenes, and she even reminded us of what was happening before, with Babs’ idle observation that Alysia was mysteriously not home yet. This issue is a great addition to The Night of the Owls.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?